Wexford primed to upset the formbook

Championship Special: Underdogs capable of bouncing back

Brendan Furlong

Waterford talisman Austin Gleeson breaking away from Eanna Martin and Diarmuid O'Keeffe during last year's quarter-final clash in Thurles
Waterford talisman Austin Gleeson breaking away from Eanna Martin and Diarmuid O'Keeffe during last year's quarter-final clash in Thurles

Wexford will still be smarting from last year's defeat, so one can understand why they will be on a mission when they take on Waterford in the All-Ireland Senior hurling championship quarter-final at the re-developed Páirc Uí Chaoimh in Cork on Sunday (4 p.m.).

While the county has hailed the Davy effect, now the time has arrived when the players must grasp the nettle and lead a newly-energised charge following their Leinster final defeat to Galway.

Nothing less will be sufficient if they are to withstand the expected challenge that their neighbours will fire at them.

Both sides arrive to Páirc Uí Chaoimh knowing that this game will make or break their season. What was good about Wexford has been their consistency all year, the only blight being a late defeat to Tipperary in the league semi-final, plus that barren twelve-minute spell that allowed Galway to take over Croke Park and end their hopes of lifting the O'Keeffe Cup.

But Wexford believe they are still good enough to have a say in the eventual destination of the Liam MacCarthy Cup, with manager Davy Fitzgerald on record following the provincial final as saying 'there is still a lot of hurling to be played'.

He is confident that Wexford will have a huge say when it comes to this quarter-final clash.

Waterford bounced back from their Munster championship exit to Cork through the qualifiers, edging out Kilkenny after extra-time following a routine win over a weak Offaly side.

They have bought into a system but it still has to yield them success on the top stage, with the patience of supporters being well and truly tested.

In Wexford the players have bought into the Davy Fitzgerald approach, which has seen them rise from a mid-table Division 1B side to winning promotion in the league, qualifying for a league semi-final and reaching the provincial final for the first time since 2008, when their clash with Galway attracted more than 60,000 to Croke Park.

Few are buying the line about Wexford's mortality following the Galway defeat. Wexford were devastated with the loss but Fitzgerald lifted their heads immediately with a return to training that week.

Ever since the preparation has been intense, with Wexford making every effort to get their own house in order, which is a reflection of what the former Clare manager has brought to the squad.

The Leinster final is gone, so it was not a time for self-pity. It's a day that has long since been parked, with Wexford having no interest in looking back, instead battening down the hatches in getting ready for what is a new challenge.

Wexford have improved immensely since last year's quarter-final defeat to Waterford. The team is somewhat changed, but will still carry the majority of those players, but once they go into the dressing-room they will be looking to see if they can carry out a gameplan to help them overcome their highly-rated opponents.

Wexford's gameplan with the use of Shaun Murphy as an extra defender will change little, but while Fitzgerald has always acknowledged this is a work in progress, he will still be putting together a system that he believes will unhinge the Waterford challenge.

To a man Wexford have stood up this year and Fitzgerald expects an even bigger response from his players on this occasion.

While Waterford will have that victory over Kilkenny behind them, Wexford are still in a great place despite the Galway defeat, having beaten the Cats in both league and championship. There is no doubt that Wexford's confidence has sky-rocketed under Davy Fitzgerald, who will also bring to the table an intimate knowledge of Waterford hurling, having also managed them to an All-Ireland final in 2008 at his first attempt.

Wexford as a hurling county were written off prior to the arrival of Fitzgerald but he has transformed the side and the support base in the county.

Wexford have stayed low-key since the provincial final loss to Galway, put in the preparations, and following their three weeks of intense work, confidence will once again have risen.

Waterford did not set the world on fire in beating Kilkenny. While there is a game in every team, some feel that this was Waterford's 'big one', beating Kilkenny in the championship for the first time since 1959, although Wexford are definitely in a major contest.

There has been lots of talk about individual players on both sides but it will be the form of the more established, experienced campaigners that will swing this game either way.

The fact that Wexford put together back-to-back defeats of Kilkenny sent out a real warning. Waterford have been down as one of the front runners for the title but Wexford are building a team which has progressed so much that out neighbours must still be wondering what to expect from the Model county.

Wexford are talented, their growing maturity in a short space of time is quite remarkable, and now an opportunity has arrived for them to become men in hurling terms.

I didn't expect them to make an impact so quickly, but now that they have arrived at the top table I expect a huge Wexford display which at the end of 70 intense minutes could send the hurling critics back to their laptops to explain how this dramatic season continues to unravel.

It's a huge challenge but Wexford can win this sprint to the line.

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